Waterfowlers are a peculiar breed. The nastier the weather, the more they want to be out in it, which seems to be the antithesis of most outdoor enthusiasts. No doubt, snotty weather is conducive to successful waterfowling. And when the weather turns, duck hunters become monomaniacal in their quest, revealing traits found in Ahab himself. Like Ishmael, I, too, become infected with this single-mindedness.
This heretofore wimpy winter hasnt produced many ideal waterfowling days, and when recent winter storms finally broke the climatic monotony, it was too late: The duck season was over. Amidst the chore of digging out from the snow, I reflected on the season as well as cursed the fates that postponed the arrival of true duckin weather.
In the last week of the season, I joined 10 other hunters for the annual hunt at Cedar Marsh, expertly organized by Paul Willey. For two days, an Arctic blast churned up the Sound and blew all the water out the marsh, making conditions tough.
Cedar Marsh, a state-owned 3,000-acre marsh located southwest of Crisfield, is a haven for fowl looking for food and shelter, particularly black ducks. In the 1960s, state and federal wildlife biologists became concerned that the black duck populations were sliding, primarily from habitat loss. Today, sound management has helped black duck populations rebound.
After a morning fiasco that left us high and dry (a situation only marsh gunners can appreciate), Bill Street, my pup Huck and I were determined to reverse that sad state of affairs. We marched into bone-chilling 25-knot winds, dragged our gear over mud flats and waded across 300 yards of chest-high, white-capped frigid water all in the name of waterfowling. More than once we exchanged silent glances that screamed, have we lost our minds?
Beaten but not defeated, we set our decoys in a small enclave and waited. Pairs of black ducks flew into the marsh as hundreds of gadwall and brant rafted up with swans in bigger water. This huge raft definitely hurt our chances because natural competition draws ducks away from the fake flock.
But as the sun set, a pair of black ducks swung in low and fast, and only one made it through our gauntlet. A short time later, a pair of pintails, silhouetted against the fading light, lit to our rig in full-locked position. Such a glorious sight was too much for us, and as we rose, they cupped their wings, caught air and were gone.
My impatience cost us a good chance, and in hindsight, I should have let them come in more, but sprigtails tolling like that mess with my judgment.
On the seasons last day, I partnered up with Kevin Colbeck and Scottie Leonard. Since the marsh ponds were locked tight with ice, our plan was to shoot the Patuxent River for scaup and canvasbacks. Through the darkness and driving snow, which stung my eyes like droplets of lemon juice, I slowly guided Kevins skiff to the blind site, aptly named in this instance since we could barely see more than 30 feet in front of us. Luckily it was a short trip, and we were able set the decoys just before legal shooting time.
There were plenty of birds in the area, but only a few groups tolled to our spread, including a bull drake scaup taken by Kevin. The final insult occurred when 200 or so mallards descended from the stratosphere, landing 100 yards outside our rig.
Waterfowling on Chesapeake Bay is as much a part of the cultural fabric of our region as oystering and crabbing, indelibly etched into its epoch. Yet each year, the enormous influx of people who have moved here drawn by the Bays charms and economy has made the Bay a much smaller place and has, in some cases, pitted home-property owners against hunters over access to shoreline.
I hope it never comes to this, but it will be a sad day indeed if the wild tapestry of the Chesapeake, effulgent in its uniquely raw power, is engulfed by those who seek to be closest to its majesty.